The Fight for Freedom in Algeria Isn’t Finished
The 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika has pledged to step down, but the protesters’ victory won’t be complete without a genuine democratic transition.
It would be hard to find a living individual who personifies the recent history of Algeria better than its ailing 82-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
His current immobility has come to represent the stagnation of a potentially hugely successful nation with plentiful oil and gas reserves. In recent weeks, Algeria’s citizens have expressed their dissent through mass protests—not only in Algeria itself, but also in numerous countries where the Algerian diaspora flourishes.
Demonstrators were appalled by Bouteflika’s now-altered decision to stand for a fifth term after 20 years in office, and that is why, on March 11, they effectively forced him to back down. In the end, it was an anticlimactic finale to a life of enormous influence.
Bouteflika, the president of Africa’s largest country by land mass, started life as the product of a colonial system enforced by French occupiers. Born in 1937 in the Moroccan town of Oujda, where his parents had moved to find work, Bouteflika returned to the motherland as a teenager to join its burgeoning nationalist movement. He fought in a military branch of the National Liberation Front that finally achieved Algerian independence from France in 1962 after years of bloody conflict.
Following independence, Bouteflika became the Constituent Assembly representative for the northwestern city of Tlemcen and was then appointed minister for youth, sports, and tourism. A series of more prestigious jobs ensued, including foreign minister and president of the United Nations General Assembly.
Bouteflika’s political career was initially as fragile as his country’s development. With allegations of corruption prevalent throughout the nascent republic, he went into exile in 1981 in the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, before being convicted of fraud two years later. He was found guilty of taking 60 million dinars ($500,000), while claiming that he was simply keeping the money safe to pay for a new foreign affairs ministry. Bouteflika insisted he was being smeared by political opponents and returned to Algeria in 1987, determined to clear his name and resume his vocation as a politician.
The Algerian Army backed Bouteflika’s place in the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front—the main power broker after the French left—and he watched his country sink into a devastating civil war that started in late 1991 and lasted for over a decade. Bouteflika kept a relatively low profile for most of this period, before successfully running as an independent candidate to become president in 1999.
After suffering a stroke in 2013, Bouteflika did not address the public for six years. He recently underwent treatment in a hospital in Switzerland, while hanging on to his title until eventually confirming, this week, that he will not seek a fifth term. Bouteflika is Algeria’s longest-serving head of state and has remained the figurehead of the “pouvoir”—the “power” group made up of military, secret service, and business leaders who run all state affairs. It was loosely formed in 1962 by those who had brought about Algeria’s independence from France.
Stability was crucial to the pouvoir, and it was this that sustained Bouteflika’s rule right up until his 82nd birthday this month. They were not unduly challenged by democratic accountability in a country where disputed elections saw their candidates regularly win more than 80 percent of the popular vote.
On March 9, I was outside the Algerian Embassy in London listening to many protesters voicing their concerns. Some brandished the distinctive white-and-green flag of Algeria emblazoned with the red crescent and star, while others wore the shirts of the Desert Foxes, the country’s renowned national football team. I saw the same in teeming crowds on the Place de la République in Paris on previous weekends.
Rather than hatred, or other destructive emotions, the overriding feeling was patriotism. The word “Enough!” was projected everywhere, including in slogans such as “20 Years is Enough!” Yes, there was antipathy, too—one banner read “We Need a Government, Not a Mafia”—but the unhappiness was generally directed at Bouteflika’s waning efforts to hold on to his job, and not his past record.
During frequent trips to Algeria since my childhood, what has struck me most is the lingering psychological effect of conflict on a population that was reduced by about 200,000 during the civil war, and by 1.5 million during the war of independence against France. Torture, terrorism, and other atrocities have increased a fear of the lethal chaos all being reignited.
Stability at any cost is a dangerous maxim, but measures including Bouteflika’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation were certainly a positive move toward establishing relative security and bringing warring parties together. The charter— which was accepted by 97 percent of Algerians in a 2005 referendum—offered amnesties for those who fought in the civil war in exchange for them giving up their armed struggle. This applied as much to insurgents as it did to the security forces. Compensation was also paid to the surviving families of victims.
Militant groups, especially ones such as al Qaeda, continue to wage their campaigns in the country’s desert south, far away from where the vast majority of the population lives—but the level of violence is nothing like it was. In the meantime, Bouteflika presided over economic successes, modernizing and spreading prosperity.
Now, however, there is considerable anger that it remains those closest to the pouvoir who are holding everyone else back. The privatization of state-owned industries has been stymied, while fluctuating oil prices have hampered an Algerian economy that is over-reliant on the energy sector.
Unemployment is skyrocketing, particularly among young people. The jobless rate for those under 25 is hovering just below 30 percent, a figure made all the more dramatic when one considers that an astonishing 75 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 30.
Algeria’s youth today resemble the generation that rebelled in neighboring countries, including Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, during the Arab Spring, eventually bringing about regime change.
During the recent protests, some 3 million Algerians from all walks of life, from students to judges, defied a 2001 law that bans them from anti-government gatherings. Yet what was most noticeable was that the kind of public disorder or outright revolutions that became common across the Arab world eight years ago were not being replicated in Algeria. Crowds have been overwhelmingly peaceful and well behaved.
Parents and children carrying flowers and women ululating conveyed a sense of solidarity, civility, and celebration. A code of conduct had been drawn up, encouraging anti-Bouteflika demonstrators to dress appropriately, clean up the streets after protests, and share everything from drinking water to vinegar as a remedy in case of tear gas.
Chants and slogans were short and to the point—“The People are united against the Regime”—rather than coarse and profanity-laden. Other more imaginative placards read “Only Chanel does No. 5,” in reference to their opposition to a fifth Bouteflika term and the famed perfume. There has been at least one tragic death, but social media images coming out of the country do not suggest an exceptional level of repression. By contrast, France, Algeria’s onetime oppressor, has seen at least 12 fatalities and hundreds of serious injuries during the ongoing yellow vests uprising.
In the case of the Algerians, the protests have achieved some success. Bouteflika has rightly announced he will step down, but he has provided a muddled compromise—one that the pouvoir may yet take advantage of—as the elections scheduled for April 18 have now been postponed. In the meantime, the demonstrations—from strikes to street protests—will continue.
It remains to be seen whether a small but ruthlessly organized cohort of oligarchs—those who have built up eye-watering amounts of cash and oil wealth—are now inclined to share their privileges. Democratic transition is of paramount importance to bring about radical change in the system. Buying time in the hope that another puppet can be installed at leisure is not good enough.
Algeria must use this opportunity to respond to the demands of a technologically savvy, ambitious young society. Bouteflika’s retirement is a historic chance that must not be wasted.